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Making a Case for Providing Own Defense

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Billy Ray Waldon says he remembers the moment he decided what his contribution to the planet would be.

As a child in the largely Indian community of Tahlequah, Okla., Waldon says he spoke Cherokee as well as English. When he compared the two languages, he said, it seemed that he could think faster in Cherokee.

“Certain ideas I could think so quick and so fast that I called them lightning bolts,” Waldon recalled. “I said to myself, ‘Why doesn’t someone collect all the lightning bolts together, in one language?’ . . . It would be the most superior language anyone had ever seen.”

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How Waldon invented that language, which he calls “Poliespo,” was among the many topics he addressed Friday night, in a lively, 2 1/2-hour telephone interview from his cell in the downtown jail.

Speaking just days before the start of his death penalty trial, Waldon focused many of his comments on his hard-won battle to represent himself without the aid of a professional lawyer. Even as he prepared to face the jury on his own behalf Monday, Waldon said he believed there were those in the San Diego legal community who were plotting to take away his right to do so.

Waldon, who calls himself by a Cherokee name, Nvwtohiyada Idehesdi Sequoyah, said Judge David M. Gill, the trial judge, is “a man with two faces” who has “hatred for me personally.” He said his two court-appointed advisory counsel, whom Waldon has banished to sit in the audience, could not keep the secrets he asked them to keep.

“In my situation, I am the client. I am the defendant. I am also the attorney,” he said. “I have no other way of protecting the confidentiality of my defense, other than having defense people who are extremely closed mouthed.”

As well as railing at the judicial system, however, Waldon spoke with eloquence about the rich history of the American Indian and about his first love, linguistics. Above all else, he said, he was disgusted by the “unbelievably ghastly” acts of which he is accused.

“Have you read the charges I’m accused of?” he asked. “I’m charged with three murders that I didn’t commit. I’m charged with an attempted murder. I’m charged with a whole host of horrendous, horrible other crimes.”

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He continued: “I wish those crimes never occurred. But I wasn’t there. . . . Mercy, what can I feel? I can feel sorry that I’ve been accused. I can cry with the victims and sympathize with them for the brutality they suffered. But that doesn’t mean I did it.”

Police allege that on Dec. 7, 1985, Waldon shot and killed Dawn Ellerman, 42, in her Del Mar home and bludgeoned to death her two small Shih Tzu dogs. Then, in an attempt to cover up the murder, police believe Waldon set fire to Ellerman’s house, killing her 13-year-old daughter, Erin, in the blaze.

During the following two weeks, Waldon allegedly went on a spree, robbing several San Diegans and twice raping a woman in Pacific Beach. Then, on Dec. 20, police say Waldon was fleeing the scene of a purse-snatching when he encountered two men in University Heights and opened fire. Charles G. Wells, 59, was killed and John Copeland, then 36, was wounded.

During the next seven hours, 150 officers, three helicopters and several police dogs hunted for the suspect in nearby canyons. He could not be found.

Six months later, police pulled over a 1965 Ford Mustang because of a defective taillight. The driver attempted to flee, but was apprehended and jailed under the name he gave: Stephen Matthew Midas. Three days later, on June 19, 1986, a detective recognized Midas from an FBI poster. He turned out to be Waldon.

Waldon has pleaded not guilty to these crimes--24 counts in all that police say he committed between late 1985 and mid-1986. Waldon says he would prefer to remember 1985 as the year he completed a 20-year project: the creation of his own language.

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During childhood, which he spent in the home of his maternal grandparents, Waldon called the language “Anagalisgi”--the Cherokee word for lightning bolt. Later, he changed the name to Poliespo. He spent years perfecting it, combining Cherokee affixes with roots of words from Esperanto, the widely spoken international language invented by a Polish linguist at the end of the 19th Century.

The resulting vocabulary, he said, is easy to learn and saves time. Instead of the three-word English phrase “in the cup,” he uses one word in Poliespo: tasalaz . He said the Poliespo word stwama (pronounced staw-ah-maw) means “I love both of you.”

In college, where Waldon began work on a journalism degree, he says he took notes in Poliespo instead of English because it was faster. (All the Poliespo characters can be typed, he said, on a common typewriter. Some vowels, however, have slashes drawn through them).

In 1973, Waldon said he joined the Navy. Within a few years, he said, he became a Navy electronic warfare technician and began traveling the world--all the time, gathering new tidbits from other languages to insert into his own.

“I spent my whole life on it,” he said proudly. “It’s the most rapid-thinking language on our planet.”

When Waldon first became a suspect in the Del Mar murders, the FBI confirmed that Waldon was a Navy man who spoke several languages, including Cherokee, Esperanto, French, Italian, Japanese and Spanish, as well as English. Waldon says the FBI left a few out--among them: Basque and Cantonese.

Throughout the interview, Waldon spoke intelligently but kept certain things to himself. Worried about providing “ammunition” to the prosecution, he was fiercely secretive about some aspects of his life.

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He said he is a mixed blooded Indian. But he would not say how he chose his Indian name. Was it a coincidence that the person who began a tradition of Cherokee literature by introducing a Cherokee alphabet in 1821 was a mixed blooded man named Sequoya? Waldon wouldn’t say.

But he did reveal some personal details. He never knew his father, he said, but that never bothered him. He had a happy childhood, he said, adding that his mother, who was always more like a “distant aunt,” is still alive.

“I don’t have much relation with her at all, but I do know her,” he said. Later, he offered this: “I was never ever abused at all, period, by my grandfather or my grandmother.”

He had much more to say about friendships he’d made in jail. He said he got to know Toufic (Tom) Naddi, an El Cajon man who was sentenced to life in prison last year for killing five of his family members, “very, very well.”

“I’ll tell you the truth,” Waldon said. “I have never, ever in the world met a person kinder than he is.”

Naddi had wanted to represent himself at his trial, but the court kept him from doing so on mental competency grounds--a plot, Waldon said, to keep Naddi from showing the jury how compassionate and good a person he is. Waldon said he is determined not to let anyone force him into making the same mistake.

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“I don’t think my personality is as magnetic and charismatic as Naddi’s. But you know, in my lifetime those who have gotten to know me, the vast majority have liked me. And the vast majority have sensed and realized that I am a nonviolent, peaceful person,” Waldon said.

“I don’t think that the jury would ever get that impression if an attorney represented me. I think they would convict me of crimes I’m innocent of. And (the press would) interview them (afterwards) and they’d say what they said about Naddi: ‘We were scared to death of him. We don’t want him on the streets.’ ”

When told how unwise most legal scholars find his decision to represent himself in a capital case, he said he thought those scholars were correct, but only for some defendants.

“If the defendant has been mutilating animals for all of his childhood years and he killed people and mutilated them and it’s all documented, I think it would be wise for that particular defendant, if he was horrible in many, many other ways, for him to just sit silent and let an attorney speak for him,” Waldon said.

“But if the defendant . . . has always been an honest person and he has witnesses who will testify to that effect. And he’s always treated people kindly and with compassion and if he’s made a contribution to humanity and . . . is a person who most people like if they get to know him,” he said, “then I think it would be better for that particular type of defendant to stand up himself and speak, and allow the jury to get to know him.”

Waldon said he places himself in the latter group. “I like to think that I’ve always been an honest person,” he said.

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Waldon said he is penniless. But even if he had unlimited financial resources, he said, he would still opt to present his own defense.

“I would definitely hire me a really good lawyer . . . (but) he would sit at my side and give me advice, and I would represent myself,” he said, adding that lawyers, in general, take too much control away from their clients. “These attorneys are allowed to do virtually anything you don’t want. . . . That’s dictatorialness.”

He added: “I certainly don’t wish to die. But we all have to die sometime. I would like to die of old age. But if I’m forced to die for crimes I never committed, then I’ll just be forced to do it.”

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